I was six, and he was five. Irish twins, I later realized. He followed me around. It was extremely annoying. My precious, shadow boy. We spent all of our time together. For better or for worse, I made him into a man.
Our daddy (yes, we called him that) worked in the paper mill, down the hill. The mill owned all five of the houses, up where we lived, on a difficult to navigate, gravel road. We lived in the last of the houses, surrounded by woods. There was only one heating vent, and the roof leaked. We caught the drips in pots from the kitchen.
There was a deer path from our house to the mill. Our father carried a hardhat and a black, metal lunchbox. I’d wait for him, at the top of the path, in the evening. Our father isn’t a toucher. I fantasized about jumping into his arms when he came home, but he wouldn’t have liked that, and I didn’t dare. Now, I watch my enormous, little brother wrap himself around his tiny daughter. I’m so glad that she has him for a daddy, and also, I’m envious. I love my father, but as a small child, I so wanted the daddy that is my brother.
Our next door neighbors had five kids, but I only remember three of them. Thanette was 17, Bobby Jo was 10, and Candi was 7. I was six, and my brother was five. Bobby Jo had a heart defect that kept her from growing, so she was my size. She and Candi hung out with my brother and me. At the end of the gravel road, out in the woods, none of us had a lot of other options.
My sixth year was an important one. Bobbi Jo and Candi had a small shed behind their house. In that shed, my brother and I smoked our first cigarettes. We perused our first Playboy magazines. We stashed our first, shop-lifted candy.
In their house, I witnessed my first, real beating. My brother and I were spanked, but my parents have never, ever, lost their tempers while hitting us. We don’t do that either. I don’t even understand how people lose their tempers. In my family, we don’t think that’s ever okay, for any reason. I find it both weak and inappropriate. So our spankings were highly rational and entirely controlled. If we got caught breaking a rule, we got spanked, methodically. It was a deterrent, but hardly a terror.
I’d never seen real violence, until one afternoon when Bobbi Jo, Candi, and I walked into their house, through the back door, just as Thanette, who had never spoken to me, was bent her over the kitchen table by her mother, who pulled down her pants, and whipped her with a belt, while she cried and screamed. Even as a six year old, I knew that I didn’t really understand normal social interaction, so I was accustomed to watching, and mimicking the reactions of others. Bobbi Jo and Candi acted like it was normal. I didn’t know what was normal, and I mimicked their reactions, but I knew that I didn’t like it. It was the first time that I recognized a distinction between my ethics, and what others expected. I didn’t care what other people thought. I didn’t like watching Thanette being beaten; it didn’t seem right to me, and it made me angry.
That summer, Bobbi Jo, my brother, and I walked along the mill path. My daddy had been laid off by then, so instead of an empty house, our house was occupied, during the day, by our depressed father, who didn’t really like children. Naturally, we kept our distance.
It was a narrow path, and the wide grass and foxglove reached my shoulders. To this day, when I see an overgrown lot, I wonder why children aren’t playing in it. We walked single file. My brother was between us when he fell. A rock, about 3/4 inch around, fully embedded itself in his knee.
I wanted to carry him home, and Bobbi Jo, in spite of being older, as usual, followed my lead. My brother wouldn’t allow it. He’s no dummy. So he hopped, and we supported him on either side. It took a long time, but we eventually got him home.
My family didn’t have health insurance, and regardless, we weren’t into doctors. Our daddy put my brother in the tub, used a pair of pliers to take the rock out, and poured iodine over my brother’s knee, while my brother screamed. I watched from the bathroom doorway. The blood and iodine combination turned the bathwater red. Oddly, I felt no inclination to intervene. It was simply necessary. Later, and even today, in spite of the scar on his knee, my brother agrees.
I should be grateful that our father was laid off, and that, two years later, we moved away, to the city. I probably wouldn’t have fared well as a non-normatively gendered kid, out in those woods. Or maybe I would have. I had the foxglove, and the dogwood, and the lilac. I loved the way that the lilac smelled. I had the blackberries that I picked for pie, and the deer that competed with me for them. I had the coyotes, who ate my beloved cats, and the foxes. They understood my dog ways. I had the salamanders in the reservoir, the garter snakes, and the voles.
My daddy taught me to shoot behind that house. My mama took us further up the hill, hiking up the long, dirt path, to catch salamanders and tadpoles. We had a rusty swing set. I’d swing on it, singing “I See the Moon,” and thinking about how my grandpa, far away, was going to die before I saw him again. But we shared a moon. Now, I share that moon with Bobbi Jo, and Candi, and my brother, and with you, too.
I wonder sometimes, what happened to Bobbi Jo and Candi. What did they do, to escape the violence, to escape the woods? I know what we did. I’m not convinced that being poor in the city was better, but I don’t know. I sometimes think that I left the best of myself in those woods, on that mill path, hidden among the foxglove. But then I see my enormous, little brother wrap himself around his daughter, and I know; that’s the best of me, there, in my precious, shadow boy.